Russian President Vladimir Putin participated in another of his trademark marathon question and answer sessions on Thursday, taking calls and video questions from Russians in different parts of the country as well as from Crimea, which Russia now claims after invading the Ukrainian territory in 2014. As usual, the event, which lasted more than three and a half hours, was a combination of the mundane, the menacing, and the truly bizarre.
In between questions about the condition of the roads in Omsk, the plight of unpaid fish plant workers in Sakhalin, and attempts to pry into his public life, the Russian leader addressed many issues currently in the news, including his recent decision to create a National Guard commanded by his former personal bodyguard. The force has been characterized by many of his critics as a private army operating within Russian borders.
Why did he create it, one caller asked. Putin offered a mix of reasons, both economic and related to national security and law enforcement. When another asked, more pointedly, why its commander reports directly to him. Putin dodged, saying, “Everyone reports to the president.”
The Russian leader offered a number of criticisms of the United States, and alleged that a recent expose by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that revealed the extent of global financial firms that facilitate tax evasion was actually the work of the US government operating through the German newspaper that was central to the investigation.
The report, which implicated leaders in countries around the world, identified a number of Putin associates who appear to have been involved in some questionable activities.
“We know that members of the American intelligence community are involved," Putin said, suggesting that the aim is to disrupt Russia in advance of coming elections. "The German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung is owned by a holding company, and that holding is owned by the American financial company Goldman Sachs. The closer we get to the elections, the more such attacks we will see."
On the topic of elections, one caller demanded, “What's the point in voting if the ruling party - United Russia - always wins?"
Putin defended United Russia, his own party, saying that it preserves Russia’s stability and has solved many social problems. He also said that the elections in Russia are “fair and transparent.”
Another questioner said that he believes the prominent political parties prevent new groups with different political interests from developing, only to be deflected by Putin with a bit of tried and true Russian whataboutism.
Instead of addressing the issue, he instead asked listeners to consider the situation in the United States. “They've had the same two parties for centuries now,” he claimed. “Bill Clinton was the president, now his wife is running for office...Where is the diversity?”
In one of the weirder moments of the event, a 12-year-old girl was allowed to ask the president a hypothetical question. If Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were both drowning, and he could only save one of them, which would be pick.
Putin, who has a poor relationship with both men, oddly reframed the question to assume that both men were actually attempting suicide.
“If someone decides to drown, there is no one that can help him,” he replied, to applause. “However, we are ready to help everyone if they want it.”